How To Spot Double Negatives (And Why You Should Care)

Friday, January 192 min read

We don’t have no use for double negatives. These redundant thoughts use multiple negative words, resulting in overly complicated and easily misunderstood sentences. In grade school, we’re taught that all double negatives are a no-no, and while that is the case 99% of the time, an appropriately used outlier double negative can add flair to your writing. Learn more about how to spot double negatives, how to fix these errors like a pro, and the rare cases of when and how to use double negatives appropriately.

Defining a Double Negative

Double negatives are misleading. In the clause “I didn’t have no lunch,” the speaker intends to say they did not eat lunch, but technically, the negatives cancel each other out, and the sentence means they actually did eat lunch (“I did not have no lunch”). For this reason, double negatives are almost always incorrect because they flip the meaning of a sentence.

Since double negatives create an opposite intent most of the time, it’s important to be able to spot them. However, some double negatives are more evident than others. “I didn’t see nothing,” for example, is pretty obvious. The negatives “didn’t” and “nothing” cancel each other out. It should be corrected to “I didn’t see anything” or even “I saw nothing.”

These types of words are often used in double negatives:

  • Negative determiners: no and neither
  • Negative pronouns: neither, nothing, none, no one, nobody, and nowhere
  • Negative adverbs: not, never, neither, nor, barely, hardly, little, scarcely, seldom, and rarely
  • Negative verbs (especially contractions): couldn’t, wouldn’t, don’t, isn’t, can’t, shouldn’t, wasn’t, and doesn’t

Combining any two of these negative words results in a double negative. The trickiest combination might involve contractions and negative adverbs (hardly, little, never, only, scarcely, and seldom). They cause less conspicuous double negatives, such as, “We can’t hardly wait!” The correct version is, “We can hardly wait!”

How to Fix a Double Negative

To fix a double negative, it’s usually as simple as removing one of the negative words or replacing one of the negatives with a positive. Sometimes, either fix works for the sentence.

Fixing a double negative by removing one of the negatives:

Incorrect: “I cannot go nowhere tonight.”

Correct: “I cannot go tonight.”

Incorrect: “We haven’t hardly talked.”

Correct: “We hardly talked.” Or, “We haven’t talked.”

Incorrect: “I couldn’t barely finish the book.”

Correct: “I couldn’t finish the book.”

Fixing a double negative by swapping a negative for a positive:

Incorrect: “I didn’t have none.”

Correct: “I didn’t have any.”

Incorrect: “I cannot go nowhere tonight.”

Correct: “I cannot go anywhere tonight.”

When Is a Double Negative OK to Use?

When it comes to style, double negatives can emphasize or give further context to sentences. For example, “I can’t not go to this party” suggests that the speaker doesn’t want to go but feels they have to. It has a very different connotation from “I must go to this party.” It’s the same with “He wasn’t unhappy with his performance.” These paired negatives suggest that the subject wasn’t thrilled with his performance, but he wasn’t necessarily disappointed either.

Double negatives have been used to great effect in songwriting, such as in Diana Ross’ famous cover “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and in the Rolling Stones’ hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Double negatives can be powerful when used for rhetorical effect, but as a general rule of thumb, they should be avoided in most situations.

Feature image credit: dusanpetkovic/ iStock

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